Conspiracy theories and how they relate to medieval butt trumpets

I realised the other day that my life would make perfect sense if I first assumed that some malevolent entity was trying to destroy me in the slowest and most painful way possible, raising obstacle after obstacle over the smallest things I try to do, ensuring luck never goes my way, and – if I try to evade the rain of destruction – punishing me for that defence by redoubling the attack.

Doubtless this entity is a demon from the same pit of hell that spawned my primary school teachers, some of my bosses during my working life – and, of course, a variety of people working in my field who I’ve never met, but who have been running lifetime crusades to wreck any income and success I might achieve in their territories.

Were I living in the medieval period, a world where people believed in butt-trumpets, killer rabbits riding war-snails, and that the whole world was run by a secret elite, this scenario of being haunted by a malevolent demon trying to torment me to death might even seem credible. And yes, I said butt trumpets. They were a thing, at least as far as the monks writing out the manuscripts were concerned…

Naturally – as someone brought up on the sciences – I don’t believe for a moment that any of this is true, still less co-ordinated. I just have endless bad luck. My primary school teachers weren’t demons, merely sad little humans who had lost moral compass; and the strangers in my professional field who perform like deranged psychotics in their efforts to destroy my repute and income, do so for reasons wholly to do with human nature and their own personal insecurities.

In short, there’s no need to put either an over-arching pattern to the relentless way events concatenate against what I’m trying to do, or suppose it’s co-ordinated, or to invoke any of the many mystic beliefs humanity has developed across its existence. Killer rabbits that go into battle riding snails, for instance.

But the temptation to put some kind of over-arching rationale to an ill-understood and dangerous world that one is powerless to influence – to suppose there is a plan involved – is very strong. As I understand it, humans are actually hard-wired to find such patterns. It was, if we are to believe evolutionary psychology, a survival trait. If you thought you saw a sabre-tooth tiger in the bushes and reacted, you might escape. If you mistook a few shadows for the tiger – well, no harm done. But if you missed seeing the pattern, you were probably going to be lunch. So the tendency was to hard-wire humans to see patterns, even if none existed.

That, however, is only half the story. The other is the nature of explanation, which was again well captured in the medieval period where there was wide belief in conspiratorial deceit. Nothing was as it seemed: everybody with power lied, and the world was, apparently, run by a secret elite. Exactly who this secret elite were depended on who you talked to. Some said the Illuminati, others the Knights Templar, and so on. But every time, and despite being reliant on their secrecy for survival, every one of these elites felt they had to leave blatant ‘clues’ pointing to their existence – clues that only the savvy medieval conspiracy theorist could discover and put into a pattern revealing The Truth.

If any of that sounds familar – well, human nature doesn’t change. This kind of thinking – that some pattern reveals The Truth that only a few individuals can discover – is common. And there has been suggestion that this kind of thinking may well have had a survival advantage back in the hunter-gatherer era when bands of humans numbered around 150. Today? Not so much. But it has been postulated that to imagine a simple explanation for the complexities and unknowns of the world – an explanation that whoever imagines it can understand and which gives them comfort – is a defence mechanism that humans raise in times of stress. No killer rabbits required.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2021

9 thoughts on “Conspiracy theories and how they relate to medieval butt trumpets

  1. Yes Okay ,,but explain to me and then I will postulate my own theory. Why some rational ,successful ,intelligent,members of our society’s do not respond to logical refutes of their conspiratorial beliefs .
    Often the results of factual evidence presented to the nature of a fallacious conspiracy brings on a rush of emotion,paranoia and fear and and end if not to the relationship but to the dialogue at least.
    A well ‘you believe what you want to believe and I will believe my way’ sort of thing.Other wise these people are completely normal ?

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    1. I can think of at least two people that you and I were at high school with who believe in every conspiracy theory going, total crazypants stuff, but otherwise present as perfectly normal people in everyday society (DM me on Facebook, you’ll remember them). Why? The idea that conspiracy theories offer an easier way of understanding the universe is plausible to me. That works hand-in-hand with studies suggesting that people who believe such theories lack critical thinking, which also seem plausible: In other words, to them the explanation becomes compelling.


      1. My recent understanding upon inquiry suggests there is psychological facet to it .The conspiracy which starts with a passing interest, develops into obsession then delusional obsession and can I believe in time dependent on the susceptibility of the person involved develop into mania and psychosis ,although god forbid I haven’t seen it go this far.I have however observed this progression in a number of close associates and friends over the years .
        I have also noticed that if evidence and logic are presented early in the progression the otherwise quite rational intelligent people will simply put it aside without any care at all.
        later tho once it has become delusional obsession and at times mild mania the same rational has a dramatic and completely different result,then the rush of emotion ,fear and anger surfaces and cognitive dialogue is not only useless but destructive.I think this suggests some psychological imbalance or need,
        Need may seem a strange word to use but I read that most conspiracy theorists have something missing in there lives some sort of loss or trauma and as I am intimately cognate to a number of these people this is 100% plausible at least to me.
        In conclusion I think there is a similarity between the twin phenomenon of conspiracy theorists and radicalisation in our modern world. Not a new thing by any means of course but with the advent of the net and social media, well just look…
        Time for me to read the link you sent me thanks ,,

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        1. I’m inclined to agree: and again, there are studies showing that people are moved by emotion – not logic. An explanation that appeals emotionally becomes more compelling than one that can be shown to be objectively true. Back when I worked at Reserve Bank, in the communications area, I used to field reasonably frequent public queries about the organisation’s crest. This contained a heraldric red. To some people, it turned out, this was a ‘hiding in plain sight’ clue that ‘proved’ the place was ‘owned’ by the Rothschilds. In fact, of course, the crest contained all four heraldric colours and the origins of them in an early-1960s decision by the Board were documented in a file, about 10 cm thick, that I made sure was kept. But why believe documentary proof when the emotional ‘truth’ of a central bank lying about its ownership was more appealing? For me the intriguing part remains the way in which, allegedly, all the perpetrators of conspiracies simply MUST leave blatant ‘evidence’ as to what they are doing, out in plain sight, for the believers to find. I mean, the first principle of secrecy is that, if the secret itself isn’t known, people won’t think to look for it. Sigh…

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  2. So…butt trumpets, eh? -sigh- as if they’re not loud enough already! Ahem…
    I guess when you combine a sense of doom [life prospects going backwards], a lack of trust in the ‘Establishment’ [because those life prospects have to be caused by someone or something], and the human love of patterns, the development of conspiracy theories is almost inevitable. And when you think about it, all of us who write stories are basically creating conspiracy theories too. The only difference is that we, and our readers, know it’s fiction.
    I’d feel sorry for the free-range conspiracy theorists if the pandemic had not given them such a powerful weapon to use against the rest of us.

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    1. I must admit that I first became aware of ‘butt trumpets’ via Monty Python & The Holy Grail – they appeared on one of Terry Gilliam’s animations. At the time I thought this was simply classic Gilliam, that the Killer Rabbit of the Cave of Caerbannog was classic Python silliness, etc. I should have known better, given that Terry Jones was also a serious medieval scholar… leading me to wonder just what the monks originally drawing these things back in 987 AD were actually ‘on’.

      I often feel the conspiracy theorists draw authentication (in their own minds) via their lack of trust of the establishment – and that it’s easier to assign intent, plan and malice to events. Personally I see no reason to assign plan to anything that can be as easily explained by lack of co-ordination, improvisation and random events. But as you say, the pandemic has supercharged the conspiracy theorists.

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      1. Oh! I loved Monty Python too, but I had no idea any of that was ‘real’. I should say that I was primed for ‘No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!’ by being a huge fan of the Goons. I was too young to appreciate them directly but a uni friend had a 78 with some of their funniest skits. I was quickly hooked. 😉
        Re the conspiracy theorists, I think that lack of trust ‘primes’ them for alternate explanations. Kind of ‘the enemy of my enemy must be my friend’. Given how logical /that/ is, the rest is pretty much inevitable. 😦

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